Matt McGorry on Tackling ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘How to Get Away With Murder’

It’s been a busy time for 29-year-old Matt McGorry this past TV season, starring in two award-winning hit shows: as John Bennett, a better-behaved prison guard who serves alongside the corrupt Mendez (aka “Pornstache”) in Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”; and as the well-bred and goofy Asher Millstone, who’s become a fan favorite in Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Which show are you recognized for more often?
It’s sort of rare that I get recognized for just “Murder.” But it is really cool when people recognize me from both. I take a special pleasure in that, because I’ve had the opportunity to play such different characters.

Are there any similarities between the two characters?
I like to say (Asher) is like the Pornstache of “Murder.” He’s like the douchey kind of comedic-relief jerk. I think Bennett’s disposition might be sweeter.

The roles you were cast in were originally smaller, then became series regular on both shows. Do you recall either audition?
I booked both from a tape with casting. I never went in for a callback. I never had a producer session. At the audition for “Murder,” the character’s name on the breakdown was “Doucheface,” and that intimidated me a little bit.

When you auditioned for “HTGAWM,” did you know it was a Shonda Rhimes show?
I did. I’m very good at managing my expectations. I was going out for pilots that year and I was like, I don’t really think I’m going to book anything. It was the first year I really had ever done pilot season where you’re going on five to ten auditions per week. Prior to that, my busiest pilot season was five auditions total. I just didn’t really expect it, and I think sometimes that’s even better because you just go into the audition and think about having fun.

You really provide the comedic relief in “HTGAWM.” Were you cast as the goofy guy or did it just unintentionally happen?
In shooting, I always give them a wide range of options. It’s funny because as you go, people get more used to your humor so you can’t seek that validation as much. Alfie (Enoch) is notoriously and self-admittedly really bad at keeping a straight face when we do scenes together. We’ve had times where it goes on and on and he just keeps laughing, which is fun and funny and validating. I made Cicely Tyson laugh! I think I made her break actually. I made Viola (Davis) laugh once. That’s got to be my goal — I’ve to shake her up a bit.

Michael Lewis for Variety
 

Were you hesitant to sign onto a Netflix show?
At that point in my career, I was (playing) “Cop No. 2” or “EMT No. 3,” so anything that was the potential for recurring was really above and beyond anything I had ever done. I remember Googling Netflix, and saw they were doing a show with Kevin Spacey, and I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.”

When did you find out you were going to be a regular on both shows?
The creator (of “HTGAWM”), Pete Nowalk, at some point about halfway through, was like I want to make you in all the episodes, as long as we can do that. It ended up being a much bigger role than I had previously anticipated. I never actually found out entirely how many episodes I was intended to do on “Orange Is The New Black.” I never was told, “You’re going to be in all of them.” I would just finish one episode and then they would ask me back. It was really this tricky game of mentally trying not to prepare myself that I would be there for a lot of them. It was this slow process and it wasn’t until the end that I was able to relax and think, “Hey, that’s awesome. I was in all of them!”

Since you thought you would just be recurring characters, does that make this past year even crazier, as you look back and realize you’re starring on two hit shows?
It really is pretty insane. It wasn’t that long ago that I was personal training and now I’m acting full-time. Part of the job is coming here for the interview. Work is just a different thing now than I ever imagined it would be — like, I have to figure out what outfit I’m going to wear for this shoot today. It’s been really just wonderful.

You’ve had a very quick rise so it seems like you’re an overnight success, but what was your path really like?
I went to a performing arts high school and after that, I went to Emerson College in Boston as a theater major, all the while pursuing a career in personal training and I had been competing in power-lifting for a few years, as well. But it was really a few years before “Orange” came around that I made the full decision to hyper-focus…I was doing acting and I was doing some theater in New York and taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. I was doing that stuff, but that was different from when I really turned the switch and decided to give up power-lifting and make a full go at acting. That was really an all-consuming pursuit that was relatively quick. It lasted about two and a half years. I was putting myself on tape multiple times a week. Frankly, after I graduated college, I don’t think I was really particularly good on-camera. I certainly wasn’t as proficient as I’ve come in time. It takes a volume of work to really become comfortable.

How did growing up in New York influence your career as an actor?
It sets your sights very high because there’s no thinking you’re the sh-t. It’s not big fish in a small pond. That doesn’t exist. You’re just in the Atlantic Ocean with sharks attacking you.

You grew up right around the corner from Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea, Manhattan, where you actually took inprov classes.
That’s one of the amazing fortunes of living in New York. I remember going in high school and seeing Amy Poehler and Tina Fey do a show that was halfway full.

Did you always want to become a film and television actor or did you want to be a stage actor, growing up in New York?
There was a period in New York where I had a little more interest in theater. I went into college being pretty sure that I wanted to go into film and TV, but there weren’t many colleges with a film acting major, but in college, I did a ton of student films and sketch comedy. I became quite successful as a trainer and had a good reputation doing that and was making solid money, particularly for an actor for a secondary job that allowed a lot of flexibility, so for me, it made sense to keep my client base to support the classes and have that sort of financial cushion…I approached it in a very business-like mindset. For me, it seemed worth it to hold off on doing theater, especially the way theater seems to be going now, it seems like a lot of the juicy theater roles go to film and television actors.

So you’re on a Netflix show. How do you watch TV in your own free time? Do you binge-watch? 
I’m not really a binger. Last night, I watched two hours of TV and that was a lot for me. I watched “House of Cards” and two episodes of “Girls.”

Living in Shondaland, you’re very active with live-tweeting. It seems like you have a lot of fun with that.
I had always wanted to live-tweet. I tried live-tweeting an episode of “Orange” and that didn’t really work out. I’m not one of those people who can multi-task. I want to really pay attention when I’m there. As much as it’s entertainment, it’s also education studying the actors and understanding the scripts. It’s really a pretty active process for me so I just shut of my phone and put it away. I typically only watch a couple of hours of TV per week and most of it’s on the treadmill — except that Wifi in my gym sucks, which is really frustrating because sometimes I’ll walk on the treadmill for an hour and I can’t watch my shows. It’s disappointing.

But wait — you always live-tweet “HTGAWM!”
Usually the episodes are available for us to watch in the editing bay a couple days before the episode comes out so I like to watch it before because the first time I’m watching, I’m sort of watching for my performance. I just want the experience of what it’s like to watch the show. I like to watch it once and then I actually usually don’t watch it live even though I live-tweet. It tends to be more of a Q&A style. I just go through my notifications. People like to have parties, but I like to focus on my tweeting. One time, I was at craft services and Katie Findlay {who plays Rebecca on “HTGAWM”) tried to talk to me and I was like, “Katie, I love you, but I have to tweet.”

How intense the the no-spoiler saga of Shondaland? Do you have to take a “Spoilers 101” class?
They locked down on the spoilers very heavily, as we filmed the season finale and the midseason finale. Those processes get pretty intense and rigorous with receiving scripts — you have to receive them by hand, and they’re watermarked all over with your name, and you have to sign it out and shred it when you’re done with it. It’s an intense process. You feel like your part of something that should have taken place at the Pentagon.

Aside from being active on social media, you’ve also become an active feminst. How did that happen?
It’s amazing to be a part of two shows that have such powerful female-driven story-arcs and personalities — it wasn’t my design to end up that way. But something that’s been a big recent passion of mine is gender equality, and it’s really cool to already feel like just by being an actor, I’m already sort of a part of that.

Viola Davis plays one of the most powerful female characters on TV right now. How is it working with her?
Great. She’s super cool, super chill. I think when you start working with someone like that, it’s such a high caliber that you imagine that comes with an aire of seniority or something, but she’s really just a genuine person who’s caring and warm and funny and struggles at craft services, just like the rest of us.

Anyone else you’d love to work with in the future?
Robin Williams was my favorite. I’d like to work with Matt Damon. He just seems like a smart, cool guy, and I love his acting. And Ricky Gervais, he’s brilliant.

Where do you see your career going?
I’m hoping that these shows continue to go for me, and I’d love to do some more film work. The thing that always appeals to me is the work that I haven’t done, whether it’s a different character or a different genre, that’s what keeps me motivated and keeps me feeling alive. I’ve been told before that I don’t allow myself to dream, but I don’t think I shut myself off from that in a way that’s functionally debilitating. I’m very open to what comes and I know for me, that’s been the best way for me to live my life and be happy and enjoy things. I think at some point, I will get into some more self-generated content. I think social media, my 15-seconds videos, is a way of dipping my toe in that area.

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